How to nudge behaviour towards a health and safety culture

The Nudge approach is a recent re-packaging of behaviour-based psychology principles. A She official explains its role in corporate culture.

A large employer is using behavior-based principles to nudge behavior towards a health and safety culture, said She official Charlotte Sieberhagen.

She told that the She team and their human resources (HR) colleagues are co-operating in applying Nudge principles to influence certain identified low-risk health and safety behaviour, by cost-effective methods.

People make many mistakes based on bias and small blunders, that are typically not corrected by health and safety management systems or peer pressure. “By knowing these biases and blunders, we can nudge people into making safe choices”, Sieberhagen said.

A Nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way, without prohibiting options or significantly changing their incentives”. The approach is credited to Prof Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and to Daniel Kahneman, an American psychologist.

The South African Sheq and HR team is applying it to billboards, toolbox talks, face to face conversations on shop floor visits, announcements, Sheq training, and BBS feedback. The approach goes ‘with the grain’ of decision making, potentially boosts situational awareness, engages a transient workforce, and is low cost.

Sieberhagen explained that Nudge is not a new solution, but a repackaging of some BBS principles in the last five years. “We achieved short-term, incremental changes during Nudge interventions.

“It applies more to single, once-off behaviours, such as a particular work procedure, rather than complex behaviour or decisions. The result is also depends on context, and it has a limited capacity to affect behavioural violations. Compliance is not enforced in this approach.”

Choice architecture describes the way in which decisions could be influenced by how choices are presented to influence the outcome positively.

Some habitual or ‘default’ safe behavior is supported, and some habitual unsafe behaviors are prompted to follow healthy and safe examples. It is aimed at changing behavior and attitudes without changing people’s underlying values.

Nudges towards safe behavior is often more effective than instructions or other forms of enforcement, said Sieberhagen.

The ten Nudge behaviour-based principles

The ten Nudge principles are; Anchoring, Availability, Representativeness, Optimism or Confidence, Loss Aversion, Defaults, Framing, Discounting, Cues or Prompts, and Social Norms. These are discussed below.

Anchor health and safety
People’s choices are affected by an initial reference point that could be recalled by phrases, sounds, memories, emotional states.

For example; ‘Would you be able to work without your eyes? Are you sure you are wearing the required eye protection? Will you be able to keep your family safe on the road? Did you check your car?’

Keep Sheq training relevant and available
People’s choices are affected by salience in memory. People avoided flights directly following terror attacks, then resumed again. Avoid posters with fear-evoking messages; don’t shock without explaining how to avoid harm.

Repeat training to keep it current in memory. Repeat Sheq messages. Remind people of high profile incidents. Demonstrate to employees how PPE, fall protection, and other systems protect them.

Represent health and safety
Decisions about likelihood are based on previous outcomes; ‘I always drive without a safety belt and I have never been caught, thus I will continue to get away with it.’

Remind people of accident and incident history. Link incidents to procedural or operational deviations, such as permit violations. Demonstrate that minor injuries and disasters could be a matter of random centimetres or seconds. Near misses are just as serious as disasters.

Question over-confidence
People over-estimate their personal risk immunity. They tend to think they are immune from harm. Remind people of serious incidents involving competent people.

An electrician was shocked to death. Just because we did not get hurt by deviating from procedure yesterday, does not mean they we are immune today.

There is risk in complacency, such as pilots under-estimating weather, and over-estimating their equipment, skill, and opportunity to avoid risk. Ensure adequate risk awareness and HIRA training for new employees.

Support loss aversion
People feel losses more than gains. A fine of R1000 is felt more deeply than a reward of R1000. Confirm the adverse consequences of poor practice, and the gain from good practice. The difference is double the cost of either.

Confirm status quo defaults
In the face of complex information that might confuse people there should be automatic or status quo or default options, supporting the safe choice.

Engineering uses the principle of a ‘dead man’s switch, as in high pressure cleaning equipment. Mandatory yearly medicals could be ensured by lock out if you don’t attend the medical examination.

Frame messages in positive terms
Choices people make can depend on how the information is presented; positive or negative. Emotive words can alter choices.

State what we want; ‘We wear PPE’, rather than what we do not want (‘Do not work without PPE’). Ask for safe days, not ‘LTI injury-free days.’ Ask employees to ‘work safely by using the correct tools’ not ‘Working with the incorrect tools will cause injury.”

Reveal the false ‘discount’ of uncertainty
People under-estimate current risks that may or may not cause harm in future. We all prefer immediate gains over uncertain future gains, for example smoking, drinking, and loud music, despite the risk of diseases in the future.

Work with this ‘discount’ tendency, by providing teal time feedback of exposure, for example, print out the percentage of hearing loss. Evoke the impacts of future impacts of current behaviour on the quality of life and family. Demonstrate the consequences, for example by using industrial theatre.

Let people experience ‘hearing loss’ or respiratory disease for 20 minutes, or loud noise for one minute (at levels causing only temporary hearing loss).

Cue and prompt Sheq behaviour
Cues or prompts can be used to raise situational awareness and to keep hazard awareness at the forefront of the brain. This can alter how people habitually make decisions.

Ask for spot risk assessments. Before a staircase, signpost the need to hold on to the handrail. Before you exit the control room a voice prompt; ‘Do you have a valid PTW?’ Are you wearing the required PPE?

Work with social norms and peer pressure
People’s decisions are altered by what they believe their peers find acceptable. Ask informal peer leaders in training to demonstrate good practice. Make Sheq trendy and valued.

Draw on the moral case of ‘It’s the right thing to do’. Communicate the healthy and safe behaviour of the majority.

• This post is an extract from a presentation by Charlotte Sieberhagen, titled ‘Applying Nudge principles to influence SHE related behaviours and the choices employees make’. The presentation is based on a referenced paper.

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5 Comments on "How to nudge behaviour towards a health and safety culture"

  1. Mabila Mathebula | 30 October 2014 at 08:07 |

    Thank you Charlotte for this ‘fresh approach’. The Nudge approach is synonymous with Emotional Intelligence. How I wish our traffic police adopted the Nudge approach as opposed to their current Box approach! I hope that you will agree with me that when Jesus saved the life of a woman who was about to be stoned to death; he employed the Nudge approach by saying: “Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone”. Charlotte has thrown down the gauntlet to the safety management ‘community’; we need to change our paradigms and adopt the power of persuasion as opposed to employing coercive power.

  2. Thanks for this article, it puts a new approach into safety behaviour, especially those who is reluctant to change.
    where can I get a copy of the book.

  3. Danny van Zyl | 3 November 2014 at 13:16 |

    As if we do not already have loads of crap rules to comply with, now the Safety officers will get even more crazy. File Rejected!!!! No Staircase Climbing Plan!!

  4. Koos Duvenhage | 3 November 2014 at 18:59 |

    Attention should be given to national culture in the context of safety culture, something that Professor James Reason said required consideration when building a good safety culture. In fact the the journey towards a good safety culture should be the emphasis rather than the end point – it is quite difficult to achieve a good safety culture and quite rare to maintain it so – it requires constants effort. Behaviour is interlinked with this, and one needs to take a multi-faceted approach to achieve systematic safety. If you listen to Danny, who is feeding at the bottom of the safety hierarchy or lowest common denominator, mankind will not make any progress without massive loss and inhumane behaviour. Safety is important, its just there are many people who have no scientific training to better inform their opinions, hence a poor attitude towards safety, low perceptions of its worth translating into a poor safety culture – yes Danny, you are part of a poor safety culture – the world is much bigger than just Souf Africa, and in leading economies, great strides have been made in human welfare. Good luck with the files, you are part of the problem my ou maat, not the solution.

  5. Danny van Zyl | 3 November 2014 at 19:17 |

    “great strides have been made in human welfare”
    Koos, you might be right, but in Souf Africa, there is no place for human welfare, they only care about files and their own liability. And you are welcome to see me as part of the problem, but I speak my mind about it, whilst others goes on being the problem. The fact that I attack these “well written” articles, is based on the fact that every time someone writes something useful, the Land of the Lost, creates more procedures to include in the Rain Forest Destruction Files and more and more contractors are closing their doors being totally GATVOL for all the crap.
    It brings me back to most sensible comments made by you and others – as long as we accept courses which may not be advertised and are not longer than 2 weeks as the Gospel in Health & Safety and call these people “Specialists” – Safety will never be a decent profession. It will always be nothing but POLLUTION!
    Anyway, I have to rush to the specialist who has a two week course in cardiovascular diseases as I feel a chest pain coming….
    Cheers Koos!!

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